The delicate, dangerous strategy of trying to win St. Pete’s mayoral race in the primary

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No factor in St. Petersburg’s upcoming mayoral race is as important to lead contenders Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker as the possibility of winning the race outright in the August 29 primary.

Forget about the black vote or how voters think about the city’s sewage system or one of the upcoming debates. None of that, nor any other event or issue, will shape the final month of the campaign as will the delicate, dangerous strategy of trying to win 50 percent of the vote on August 29.

For Baker, there is an opportunity to shock and awe his opponent rather than give him time to slowly chip away at a double-digit polling lead.

For the former mayor, it’s also an opportunity to embarrass the incumbent by demonstrating that a majority of the city is not satisfied with the current mayor’s leadership.

For Kriseman, the primary is a double-edged sword. Although his campaign says its goal is to win the race outright in August, the polling strongly suggests that won’t happen.

With seven candidates running, it’s possible for Baker’s campaign to be lured into overspending for the primary, then falling just short of that magic number of 50 percent.

Go for broke, or live to fight another day?

For political consultants advising Baker and Kriseman, it’s the ultimate test of game-theory played out in the real world.

According to the latest survey from St. Pete Polls, the race stands at 44 percent for Baker and 38 percent for Kriseman.

It’s difficult to see a path for Kriseman getting past Baker, much less reaching 50 percent plus one. He’s never even broken the 40 percent threshold when ballot tested against Baker, despite a significant media presence, both earned and paid.

And now that the TV air war has started, there’s even less of a chance of Kriseman picking up the twelve points he needs to win it all in August.

Despite the long odds, Kriseman hasn’t tamped down talk of ending the race before Labor Day. Just last week, he tweeted that he was aiming to close out the race.

It’s unclear why Kriseman is setting this kind of bar for his campaign. Unless he wins August 29, he will have lost the expectations game to Baker, who is purposefully avoiding talk of winning the primary.

Baker himself may not be talking aloud about 50-percent-plus-one, but his campaign is working toward that goal.

He’s launched two new television ads, undoubtedly backed by tens of thousands of dollars in airtime. He’s raising money at a ferocious pace (another 300K in June alone). In other words, Baker is going for the knockout.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, for Baker to win the race in the primary. The 44 percent number he’s tracking at in the St. Pete Polls survey can be deceiving. That’s because that poll was of only registered voters in the city, not likely voters. Once St. Pete Polls starts screening for likely voters — or even voters who have already cast their ballot — it’s likely that support for the five tomato cans in the race will fall off.

Baker gets to fifty percent not by winning the seventy percent of undecided voters identified in the St. Pete Polls survey, but by the overall voter pie shrinking and the non-factor candidates eating up less than of it.

Were Baker to receive just three out of ten of undecideds, and split the vote of those who bleed off non-factor candidates (a very reasonable proposition), Baker will win in the primary.

This means that Kriseman’s best chance to continue as mayor is not to win in August, but keep Baker from winning the primary outright, while conserving enough resources — and reconfiguring the campaign strategy away from non-issues like climate change — to win in November.

Not much could change between August and November, but maybe Kriseman can pummel Baker with more good news, like the recent groundbreaking at the Pier. Maybe President Donald Trump says something to further damage the Republican brand and, thereby extension, Baker.

It’s unclear what Kriseman could do to change the trajectory if Baker were to receive 48 or 49 percent of the vote in the primary, but he’d have two months to figure it out.

As it is with all campaigns (having finite amounts of time and money), the question becomes how much to spend now and how much to squirrel away.

For Baker, on pace to raise more than a million dollars before the primary is over, it’s easy to buy as much TV time as available, while sending mailers to voters nearly every day. If he did that — as well as spending another $100K on digital, billboard, and miscellaneous advertising — he still may not run out of money before August 29.

But what if he were to spend down his campaign treasury and fall a point short of an outright win.

Baker can’t carry over any votes to the general election, so what will he do if polling continues to tighten, and it becomes unlikely he can win in the first round? Does he really want to surrender a two- or three-hundred-thousand-dollar fundraising advantage, only because he’s confident he can raise more money?

If Baker’s internal polling shows a ceiling of 48 percent in the primary, does he let off the gas?

Conversely, how does Kriseman not spend every dollar he has to keep Baker from reaching 50 percent when he knows his best way to win is to go into overtime?

Again, it would be easy for Kriseman’s campaign just to spend every dollar they have between now and August, especially since the residual impact of advertising does not reset simply because the election does. But how responsible would it be to start a general election with nothing in the bank against a candidate who A) just finished ahead of you and B) has a significant fundraising advantage heading into October and November.

Honestly, I would not want to be the brain trusts for either Baker or Kriseman at this point.

Not unless both candidates agreed that whoever wins in August wins the whole enchilada …

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.